Farming in Saskatchewan has always been challenging. With input costs rising, land becoming more expensive, the always unpredictable weather taking more severe turns, a growing labour shortage, and the average age of a Saskatchewan farmer topping 71, the industry and those working in it face a few challenges. And yet, despite a plethora of rapid changes within the last decade, agriculture in Saskatchewan is more stable and better positioned for success than ever.
Affordability of land is one significant factor. To illustrate, farm realtor Tim Hammond points to Farm Credit Canada’s farmland to crop receipt ratio, an indicator of return on investment similar to price to earnings in stocks. Saskatchewan land prices are 7.5 times annual revenue, while Alberta and Ontario are 20 and 22 times, respectively. That’s a significant advantage.
“We have tremendous value,” Hammond says. “Saskatchewan is the most affordable place to farm in Canada. If you want to dryland grain farm, Saskatchewan is the most economic place to do it.”
A second factor is that young people in the province increasingly return to the family farm or start their own.
Hammond says many of the sales he sees are not large purchases by big farms or investors. The majority tend to be two to three quarter purchases to “more modest-sized farmers or even young farmers.”
Todd Lewis, who farms near Regina and is president and director of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS), agrees. He says, while the number of farms is decreasing, the growing “financial stability” and the ability to earn a “reasonable living” is attracting farm kids back to the farm. He also notes there is an increasing number of farmers under the age of 40.
“It’s not atypical to see a farm kid leave high school, go to university, work on a career for maybe up to a decade, and then make the decision to come back to the family farm,” says Lewis. “There’s lots of stories like that across the province, and I think that speaks to the overall health of the industry.”
The young farmers returning home also bring innovative ideas back with them and position these growing operations for the future.
“The younger generations are able to embrace new technology and have a better understanding of it,” says Lewis. “They are helping established operators understand how to use these technologies to the best of their advantage.”
In Saskatchewan, the best farmers are—and have always been—innovators, and we tend to grow them more than train them. But that’s changing too.
While the demand for farm labour will remain relatively stable over the next decade or so, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), the supply of skilled labour will decrease rather rapidly.1
“The story is all about retirements, especially in Saskatchewan,” says Debra Hauer, manager, AgriLMI at CAHRC. “What we’ve found across the country is that there continues to be interest in people wanting to be a farmer—to be a farm business owner. Farmworker? Not so much.”
And this is a problem. The cost of this labour shortage, measured by CAHRC in lost productivity, is estimated to be hundreds of millions annually. According to the CAHRC report, a labour shortage of around a thousand in 2017 cost the province an estimated $574 million in lost productivity.
Technology is part of the solution. More mechanized farms reduce labour needs and improve productivity. But these improvements also complicate things because the skills required to use, install, and maintain the equipment become greater.
“When you adopt new technology, then people don’t have the skills to be able to maintain whatever it is,” says Hauer. “It’s a complicating factor.”
In short, agriculture in Saskatchewan needs people and a way to train them. Hauer says more hands-on training is coming, and some may even come in the form of virtual reality. But for now, local colleges in the province handle most of it.
Parkland College, for example, recently launched a three-day “Introduction to Farm Hand” course covering farm safety, crops, and select equipment operation.
“This program is designed to meet the need for more skilled labour on Saskatchewan’s farms,” says Connie Brown, manager of business development at Parkland College.2 The hope is to do more of it.
With high-quality land at reasonable prices, a growing interest in farming, and rising opportunities to work in agriculture, Saskatchewan’s best ag days seem to be ahead of it. But the province is going to need more trained people to help push the industry forward.
“Certainly, there are great opportunities in agriculture for everyone, especially Canadians, and we’re hoping to attract more Canadians to work in agriculture,” says Lewis.
1Provincial Agricultural Reports, Canadian Agricultural HR Council, https://cahrc-ccrha.ca/programs/agrilmi/provincial-data
2Parkland College announces Farm Hand training course, Parkland College, https://parklandcollege.sk.ca/media/pc-news/3882